A high-dose flu shot designed for people 65 years of age and older is in limited supply in Illinois.
Some pharmacies and doctors' offices still have enough of the special vaccine, but those that don’t blame shipping delays from a manufacturer, as well as increased demand for the vaccine amid COVID-19. It’s possible that the U.S. will have a mild flu season — following a light season in the southern hemisphere and because of mask use and social distancing — but experts don’t know for sure. Public health leaders urge people to get flu shots so they don’t have to contend with COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.
“A normal amount we might have given last year just wasn’t enough this year,” said Dr. Robert Healy, chief quality officer at Urbana-based Carle Health, of the senior flu shot. “We regularly get the high-dose flu shot in, but it rapidly goes out and we’re down to zero again.”
Amita Health, which has 19 hospitals in Illinois, said some of its providers may have temporarily run out of the senior shot, as the system waits for additional shipments.
The Tribune called 20 chain pharmacy locations in Chicago and the suburbs this week to see if they had the senior flu shot in stock. Nearly half said they did not, with some offering waiting lists.
As people get older, their immune systems change, and they may not respond as well to regular vaccinations as younger people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why many doctors and pharmacies offer flu shots designed especially for seniors. One type is a high-dose vaccine called Fluzone High Dose, which has four times as much of the inactivated virus as a regular flu shot. That shot is associated with a stronger immune response than the regular vaccine, according to the CDC.
Another type of senior flu vaccine is called Fluad, and is made with an additive that can create a stronger immune response.
Shipments of Fluzone to some customers may have been delayed because of “the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fast start to the flu immunization season” and recent natural disasters around the country, Nicolas Kressmann, a spokesman for Sanofi Pasteur, which sells the vaccine, said in an email.
Seqirus, which makes Fluad, is not experiencing any shipping delays or supply issues, spokeswoman Abigail Rasweiler said in an email.
Both companies said they expect to produce more of the vaccines this year than usual because of increased demand.
It’s been a frustrating situation for some older consumers.
Stephen Kaufman, 77, of Urbana, sent a message to his doctor’s office at Carle this month asking about the senior flu shot and was told the office was out. He ended up getting the shot at a CVS store instead.
“I thought people shouldn’t have to do this this way, especially because it’s being so highly touted and advised,” Kaufman said.
Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, said it’s possible some pharmacies ran through their first shipments faster than they anticipated because of increased demand. Typically, pharmacies receive the flu shot in several shipments, and they reserve the vaccines far in advance, he said.
“Pharmacies had put in their reservations for their flu shots before they even knew the word ‘COVID-19,’” Reynolds said. “It’s just trying to catch up with the increase in demand for the flu shot.”
Among the Chicago-area stores contacted by the Tribune this week, five out of six Walgreens locations said they were out, one Jewel-Osco location out of six said it was out, and three Walmarts said they did not have the shots. All of the CVS Health locations contacted had the senior flu shots in stock.
A majority of Chicago-area Walgreens stores have the vaccine, spokeswoman Kelli Teno said in an email, though she said inventory varies by store and seniors should call ahead to confirm a location has it before visiting. CVS Health is not anticipating shortages and “if a local store temporarily runs low on its supply, it will be replenished as quickly as possible,” spokesman Charlie Rice-Minoso said in an email.
Jewel-Osco spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco said the grocery-pharmacy chain is not out of the vaccine. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.
Some health systems also, temporarily, have fewer available senior flu shots than in years past.
Amita has received about half of the supply it ordered, said Danielle Donzal, Amita’s pharmacy system manager for population health. Usually, by this time of the year, it would expect to have received about 75% to 80% of its order. Amita expects to receive the rest of its doses in the next month.
Edward-Elmhurst Health, which has hospitals in Naperville and Elmhurst, saw 30% to 40% more demand for the senior flu shot in September compared with the same month in 2019, said Dawn Sandner, the system’s director for population health.
If demand stays as high as it is, the system could run out of the senior flu shot in 60 to 75 days, Sandner said, though she believes Edward-Elmhurst would be able to obtain more.
Some experts say that if seniors can’t find the senior flu shot, they should consider getting the regular one instead, especially if they’re already at a doctor’s office or pharmacy. Studies have shown that even if it generates a weaker immune response, the regular flu vaccine can reduce seniors' risk of needing medical care or hospitalization. Health systems and pharmacies have not reported problems with their supplies of the regular flu shot.
Seniors can get any flu vaccine approved for use in their age group, and the CDC does not recommend any type of vaccine over another for seniors.
“It’s much better to get what’s available now than to wait for the future,” said Healy, with Carle.
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